Some thoughts on the grounds for basic equality.

In summarizing chapter 1 of Waldron’s new book, I mentioned that it was important to distinguish between differences between people that justify treating them differently in specific situations, and differences between people that justify applying totally separate moral apparatuses. In refuting Rashdall, Waldron’s point is that in accounting for the many differences between persons, we are not confronted with Rashdall-discontinuities. That is, there are no differences that demand the application of separate moral apparatuses. Waldron continues that in capturing what is important in the life of a person, we will always – regardless of who that person is – be concerned with familiar practices, languages, relationships (friendships, families, citizens, etc.), improvability, and other things that seem to define what it means to live a distinctly human life.

Waldron’s point leaves me thirsty for a clearer grounds for basic equality. It seems to me that there are two possible strategies for grounding basic equality. One is to argue that there are no differences between people that warrant discontinuity – that is, treating some people as a different kind than others in a morally relevant sense. This strategy has the seemingly insurmountable task of showing that there does not exist a single characteristic that some humans may possess and others do not that warrants this difference in moral treatment. Given the negative nature of this claim, it is unclear to me how this could be proven logically.

Another strategy is to identify one or more characteristics which every human possesses as morally relevant for sortal status. Perhaps this is what Waldron means when he lists things like familiar personal relationships, human improvability, and language. This is the strategy which philosophers often use to argue for distinctive equality – that is, the point that humans are equal in a way that makes them distinct from non-human animals. This strategy tries to demonstrate that humans are basically equal by virtue of possessing a common trait. In doing so, the strategy faces the same objections that philosophers who defend the human-animal difference must face; defenders of these uniquely human traits must account for outliers who do not fit the mold – those humans who lack rationality, or linguistic abilities, or whatever trait is deemed distinctive. After all, the entire point of basic equality is that no one is left out.

My guess is that Waldron will address this point in Lecture 3 (since it is titled “Looking for a Range Property”), but I will be on the look out.

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